Alsop Sprach Zarathustra: Decoding Strauss' Tone Poem

Jan 13, 2012
Originally published on January 14, 2012 1:12 pm

I can't imagine a more stimulating conversation opener than "God is dead." Indeed, this quote by Friedrich Nietzsche sparked heated debate in his time, as it still does today. But how many of us know the writings of this 19th-century philosopher?

I have to confess to feeling doubly intimidated when I first opened the score to Richard Strauss' symphonic take on Also Sprach Zarathustra. Not only was I faced with trying to find the key to unlock Strauss' motivation for writing this complex work, but I also faced the daunting challenge of getting my mind around Nietzsche's labyrinthine oeuvre, which inspired Strauss' work of the same name.

That said, the opening of Strauss' Zarathustra is one of the most recognizable musical excerpts in history. That unto itself always fascinates me: What makes a piece of music resonate with so many people? It can't just be its commercial associations after the fact, because those associations invariably reference the emotional underpinnings of the music itself. I decided to try to analyze what makes this opening so universal.

The piece starts in the depths of the orchestra, almost out of the range of human hearing. Then the trumpets enter in unison, playing a fanfare-like figure based on perfect intervals. Perfect intervals give a sense of possibility and vastness. I immediately think of Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, which opens with the exact same perfect intervals played by unison trumpets. The effects are identical: strength, breadth, optimism, possibility.

Repetition is important, and Strauss repeats the opening fanfare three times, each time gaining in intensity, until it finally breaks free and arrives at a majestic cadence in the key of C major — the universal key. It has no sharps or flats (it uses only the white keys on the piano), and is enormously resonant. We feel C major in a very primal way as human beings.

There is no mistaking that when Stanley Kubrick chose this opening music for 2001: A Space Odyssey, his desire was to elicit that same emotional response from viewers: to contemplate the vastness and possibility of the universe and to bring forward the same questions that Nietzsche proposed in 1885 about God, about humankind and about our existence here in the natural world.

Nietzsche's tome is a series of allegorical parables about the life of the prophet Zarathustra, delivered gospel-style in a series of 80 vignettes, all ending with the words, "Thus Spake Zarathustra."

Strauss takes Nietzsche's work and distills it into eight musical sections, with an introduction and epilogue. Through these sections, he wants to convey the essence of Nietzsche's philosophical approach to the world. Nietzsche wanted us, as human beings, to reconsider our value system and, rather than blindly believe in a monotheistic god or in the advancing scientific field, start to hold ourselves accountable for our own actions.

Whether you ascribe to that philosophy or not has no bearing on the fact that this music, composed so painstakingly by Strauss, holds the power to profoundly move us.

And that brings me to my favorite Nietzsche quote: "Life without music would be a mistake."

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If there's one piece of classical music that everybody's kind of heard, it might be this one.


SIMON: "Also Sprach Zarathustra," the tone poem composed in 1896 by Richard Strauss. We're listening to a recording by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The music scored Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," and lots of cartoons and dreams. But of course, a whole piece of music follows that iconic opening. And later this week, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will perform the piece in its entirety.

It's part of their Off the Cuff series, where great works are illuminated by BSO music director Marin Alsop, who joins us now from the studios of WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome, Maestra.

MARIN ALSOP: Hi, Scott. Great to be with you again.

SIMON: Good to be back with you. Now "Thus Spake Zarathustra" is the translation of the title from the German. This was a piece that was inspired by writings of a great philosopher.

ALSOP: It was. The composer Richard Strauss was taken. He was intrigued and also inspired by the new philosophical thinking of his day. He read everything by Goethe and Schopenhauer, and in particular, Friedrich Nietzsche, who is the inspiration for "Also Sprach Zarathustra." He wrote a large-scale work, almost like a biblical text, it's a Gospel-like set of about 80 different parables that chronicle the life and the - adventures might be a little strong - of this character Zarathustra, who harkens back to old Persian days, you know, ancient BC philosophical thinking in that part of the world.

And so what happens is Zarathustra, when he's 30 years old, he decides to go up into the mountains and contemplate life and all those good things. And he stays there for 10 years. But then he realizes that well, what good is all this knowledge and all this insight that I have if I don't go down from my mountaintop and share it with everyone?


ALSOP: This opening is about the power of nature for Strauss in conveying the Nietzsche. And, you know, when you hear this opening, which as you said, is so iconic - it' part of our everyday vernacular now, they're certain elements in this opening that resonate with us as human beings. The use of these intervals, they're called perfect intervals. They give us a sense of vastness and possibility and power.


SIMON: Interesting to me too that this piece of music, of course, is so widely indentified with a Stanley Kubrick film, that's an epical work of science fiction. There's a section of the piece called "Of Science and Learning."

ALSOP: Well, Nietzsche, you have to understand that for Nietzsche we're at the advent of scientific revolution and discovery, and he's very suspicious of science. He's feeling that perhaps science is the new organized religion. So his suspicion of science is conveyed in this section, where he takes the nature theme and he creates this very cerebral fugue. It's almost without emotion.


SIMON: You're clearly waiting for something to happen.

ALSOP: Right. Exactly. It's almost, is it ever going to go anywhere, is the feeling you have during this fugue.

SIMON: Yeah. What's the climax of the piece?

ALSOP: Well, the main big moment is when Zarathustra has his complete breakdown in the book. What happens is that there's a section in the book called "The Convalescent" and Zarathustra has been recovering from all of his journeys and he sort of leaps up from his couch and he's like, you know, possessed. He's a mad man, and he falls like a dead person and he's just out for seven days. He doesn't eat, he doesn't drink. And when he comes to, he's transformed. You know, he's reached the state of enlightenment and he understands his mission on Earth. And the way Strauss conveys this, he has the - that fugue now is gaining in momentum. The whole orchestra is madly playing. And then suddenly that revelationary(ph) C major chord comes and the whole orchestra plays in the C major and then you hear the nature theme ringing forth as though, you know, Zarathustra is - you just - that is the moment of understanding for him.


SIMON: That clearly, a breakdown. But a waltz gets in here too.

ALSOP: Yes. So the waltz is such an interesting form of music because, of course, waltz is a populist, very primal dance and it's of the people, by the people kind of approach, and so it's so unexpected that the waltz ends up representing Zarathustra, the humor of Zarathustra, who has achieved this enlightenment and the lightness of being.


ALSOP: Isn't it great the way he takes that nature theme, you know, from the very opening and now turns it into this incredible lilting waltz?

SIMON: Yeah. Is it - Marin, is there a struggle in this piece going on between different musical keys?

ALSOP: Oh, definitely. So there is a conflict between the establishment and the individual. And he conveys that very simply by a conflict of keys. So we have nature in C major in all its glory resonating, and then we have mankind a half step away down in B minor or B major. And this contrast and this conflict goes throughout the piece, and it's something that you don't have to be consciously aware of but you just feel, so this is how Strauss set up sort of a very primal conflict. And, of course, in the end you're not really sure which wins out.

SIMON: Well, let's move ahead, judge for ourselves.



ALSOP: It feels - doesn't it feel as though you just, you know, it's a big question mark to me at the end.

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Its there a resolution at the end of this experience or are we still battling with the natural world? And, of course, that's the interesting I think parallel with Kubrick's film, "2001: A Space Odyssey."

SIMON: Yeah.

ALSOP: Because these are the exact same questions that he's addressing in this epic film.

SIMON: Look, of course, every piece is difficult to conduct, given your high standards. But is this one any more taxing than some of the others?

ALSOP: I think this piece poses a very different set of challenges because it's as though I'm trying to look at a creator's work and also reference another creator's work. It's like having a lot of cooks in the kitchen.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.


ALSOP: And I think ultimately, my responsibility is to try to get these big ideas across, these ideas of the potential greatness of humankind if we are responsible for our own actions. And I think that's a message that crosses every era and every border and one that is very apropos for today.

SIMON: Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. This coming weekend they'll perform "Also Sprach Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss. Thanks so much, Marin.

ALSOP: My pleasure, Scott. Great to talk to you.


SIMON: And you can hear more of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," and read Marin Alsop's essay of the music on our website,

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.